The nation’s poets are anxious, which is not unusual, but in this case they may be on to something. They are concerned that Parliament has failed to name a new Parliamentary Poet Laureate, a position created in 2001 and enshrined in the Parliament of Canada Act. The position, which is overseen by the Parliamentary Library, has been vacant since April, and the selection process to find a new laureate still hasn’t begun. That process is now officially a year behind; responses from the Library about when it will begin and why it has been delayed combine rhetoric and ambiguity with a stylistic ease that would impress Emily Dickinson.
Going to bat for a poet laureate might seem odd, given the fiscal issues facing Canada. But the fact is that Parliament is in violation of its own law. Furthermore, the debate about spending tax dollars on a poet laureate was settled at the time the position was created. Members of Parliament voiced their concerns that spending what today amounts to about $55,000 a year was frivolous compared with the needs of Canada’s poor, or our need for better schools, or the need to set aside funds for urgent ministerial helicopter trips. Their fellow MPs listened and passed the bill anyway. They accepted the thesis of the bill’s author, the former Liberal senator Jerry Grafstein, that creating a poet laureate would reinforce the value of the written and spoken word in the digital age, tap into Canada’s rich and diverse poetry scene, and be a concrete symbol of Parliament’s support of culture. (Mr. Grafstein also hoped having an in-house poet would raise the quality of debate in Parliament. Three out of four ain’t bad.)
Britain has successfully maintained a poet laureate for 600 years, the United States Congress for 75 years. Canada’s Parliament has had one for less than 10 years, and the position is already suffering neglect. If there is no longer a desire to fill the position, then Parliament needs to legislate it out of existence. Until then, the Parliamentary Library should stop delaying and find us a new poet. (And they know it.)